Legislative Council of Hong Kong

Why are Hong Kong’s young people abandoning student unions? 

Once a fertile breeding ground for numerous activists, politicians and policymakers, there is now deep disillusionment with the traditional vehicle for student activism

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 April, 2018, 8:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 23 April, 2018, 8:24am

Au Nok-hin is the youngest member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, but the 30-year-old is an old hand at working the ground to champion his cause.

He cut his teeth as the internal secretary of Chinese University’s student union 10 years ago, where he scrutinised the institution’s development plans and took part in protests, such as when the then vice chancellor gave an honorary degree to the city’s unpopular former leader Tung Chee-hwa.

“I also learned how to contact reporters and issue statements, something I might not have known how to do as just a student,” Au said.

His experience allowed him to glide easily into his role as a district councillor – coordinating community initiatives and reflecting local opinion to policymakers – in 2011, just a year after graduating with a degree in politics and public administration. He won his Hong Kong Island seat in last month’s by-election.

Indeed, student union leaders in Hong Kong’s eight publicly funded universities and other tertiary institutions have often been seen as the voice of young people, especially in the political movements that have swept through the city.

They have also been a fertile breeding ground for numerous activists, politicians and policymakers, as union executive committee members have to lobby university management for better student welfare, organise numerous union meetings and campus events and manage union finances, among other things.

Power to the people: the real mission of Legco hopeful Au Nok-hin in Hong Kong

Those who have put their skills to use professionally include education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen, Greenpeace activist Gloria Chang Wan-ki and Allen Fung Ying-lun, political assistant to the secretary for development.

But recent lacklustre turnouts at annual executive committee elections and even the dearth of candidates wanting to be in the hot seat beg the question of whether unions can continue to play this role.

For the first time in recent memory, four of the eight publicly funded universities – Baptist University, Education University, Lingnan University and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) – had no popularly elected student union leaders, for a variety of reasons.

HKUST is still deciding whether to hold a by-election and if not, like the other schools, its union exco would be appointed by the union council, which consists of popularly elected members or those appointed from societies under the union.

Having appointed excos is not a new phenomenon though observers said the current situation belies deep disillusionment with the traditional vehicle for student activism.

They added that it could also reflect growing distrust of “official” groups, as most student unions are registered with police and are governed by the city’s Societies Ordinance.

Explaining the malaise

Politics has always been a rallying call for Hong Kong’s student unions.

Several fervently joined demonstrations and hunger strikes in Beijing during the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests.

The Hong Kong Federation of Students, then an eight-union outfit, in September 2014 led a sit-in of 13,000 students at Chinese University for a week-long class boycott.

This became a precursor to the Occupy movement for greater democracy that year, which had a muted ending after 79 days.

The fallout from Occupy, also known as the Umbrella protests, has since cast a pall on student activism.

It led to the splintering of the federation, with University of Hong Kong, Baptist University, City University and Polytechnic University students in 2015 voting to break away from the grouping, as they were unhappy with how it handled the sit-ins.

With freedom of expression held up as a basic right in Hong Kong, a sobering counterpoint came for the camp last year when the federation’s former secretaries general, Nathan Law Kwun-chung and Alex Chow Yong-kang, were slapped with jail terms for storming a government compound ahead of Occupy.

Both men, who are in their 20s, ended up serving about two months of their sentence before the city’s highest court granted their appeals and quashed their prison terms.

Sociology professor Lau Siu-kai from Chinese University said the association between unions and politics, and the possibility of exco members being thrust into the spotlight may have caused some youngsters to worry that their participation would have a negative bearing on their future. 

Five university students the Post spoke to said they did not run for union exco posts as the pressure of being sandwiched by the demands of both student members and university leaders was just too high.

Instead, they chose to participate in smaller student organisations.

A year one HKU student said he opted to join the civil engineering society instead of the union exco, as he feared damaging his future job prospects, including working in the civil service.

Mak Tung-wing, HKU student union president in 1987, said: “What we see now is reflective of the years after the Umbrella movement, where there is a sense of helplessness and high opportunity costs associated with taking up such roles.”

If ignorance is not the reason, why do young Hongkongers still dislike mainland China?

Mak, who works in a financial advisory role, said students might feel demoralised by not seeing positive changes from the work of exco leaders and how they had been treated by school management.

For example, former Baptist University student union president Lau Tsz-kei was given a one-semester suspension for his role in a rowdy protest against a widely unpopular Mandarin language graduation requirement, a decision students and even some educators found to be excessive.

“When I was a student union president, I did not envisage such risks,” Mak said. 

Ed Wong Ching-tak, last year’s HKU student union president, deferred his studies for a year just so he could cope with his numerous duties, including meetings with university authorities on welfare issues and representing the union’s views on discussions such as whether HKU should have more institutional autonomy.

Wong, who was vocal about Beijing’s human rights record, added he had been lambasted by mainland media for those comments.

State-run papers such as People’s Daily have indeed been disdainful of Hong Kong’s student unions, accusing them of turning campuses into political arenas.

But Dr Hayes Tang Hei-hang, assistant professor at Education University’s department of education policy and leadership, said there was no evidence to show that Hong Kong employers would shun those who were formerly student activists.

“Many of our current student activists can indeed be considered ‘political entrepreneurs’, and in a certain sense, risk-taking competence and entrepreneurial spirit are what are greatly needed in our changing economies and global society,” he said.

Truly representative?

The age-old question of whether union leaders truly represent the student body has resurfaced with greater resonance in recent times.

Last September, Chinese University administrators and the student union, as well as local and mainland students, clashed when pro-independence posters appeared on campus.

The union insisted the posters were within the right to free speech and should remain. Some mainland students hit back, putting up posters on the school’s “democracy wall”, a space given to students to express their views, saying “Sorry, we refuse to be represented”. Several arguments broke out when local students tried to stop mainlanders from putting up such posters over those advocating independence. 

In a moment of unity, students at several universities including City University put up similar pro-independence materials.

Unions at 12 tertiary institutions then shot to the forefront of the fracas when they jointly condemned a statement signed by the heads of the eight public universities and two private universities who said recent events were “abuses” of freedom of speech.

The state of heightened involvement has not translated into interest in this year’s exco elections. 

Last week as HKU students prepared for exams, only 16.8 per cent of 16,539 voters turned up to cast their votes in the exco by-election, compared with a turnout of 39 per cent three years ago. Still, it was sufficient to install the team of seven students.

Likewise, the turnout at Chinese University had also steadily declined over the years with 17.5 per cent this year, compared with 24 per cent two years ago.

Lau Siu-kai said voter turnouts had never been particularly strong, but the drop could be due to students feeling that the union could not make much of an impact.

Wong said appointed leaders were likely to be less vocal and participate in fewer movements. 

Dr Chung Kim-wah, assistant professor at Polytechnic University’s (PolyU) department of applied social sciences, said one could not definitively say that interest in union leadership posts was on the decline, as there could be a revival of sorts with the emergence of another political movement.

A new way forward?

Meanwhile, at least two former union exco members have set up groups not registered with the school administration saying they can now pursue political and social activism more freely.

One of them is PolyU Pavilion, which has four to five core members including the 2016 student union president Franco Wong Chak-hang, to “awaken students’ attention” to social affairs as well as school matters.

PolyU Pavilion has been told not to organise its activities on campus as it had not applied to the university for the use of venues. But beyond the school warning it of its right to pursue the matter, the group has mostly been able to continue with its events on campus with no disturbance.

A PolyU spokeswoman explained that before hosting or conducting any activity in university premises student or non-student organisations must apply for approval. The university, will then, based on established policy, rules and regulations, make a decision to accept or reject applications, as well as withdraw its approval.

Wong said the group successfully organised a forum on independence talk on campuses with speakers including HKU law professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting – recently lambasted by Beijing for his comments about Hong Kong independence at a seminar in Taiwan – and lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung last September. About 70 to 80 students attended.

He contrasted this with what happened two years when he led the union. The school rejected the union’s application to hold a forum about the Legislative Council elections, saying their venue of choice was no longer available for student events. The forum had to be moved to a smaller and less accessible location.

Both PolyU Pavilion and Lingsulate, an unofficial group at Lingnan University, said they also monitored the work of their student unions.

Lingsulate convenor Poon Ka-kit, who was the student union’s external secretary last year, said there was more continuity in the work of unofficial groups as the leadership of unions changed every year.

His view was that both types of groups could complement each other. Unions had more access to authorities and received funding, while unofficial groups had more flexibility in choosing what issues to pursue, he said.

“Every student should care about what’s happening in the school and society, and it should be something spontaneous, instead of being limited by the parameters of what unions can say or do.”